A FLURRY of sleet spattered St Alban's rugby club as the scrum heaved and grunted. 'Power' commanded the flanker and the pack threw themselves into their freezing task with a will and an almost audible buzz of excitement. For most male sides the buffeting would have provided the perfect excuse to end the practice session. To the England women's team at their last training camp before the world championship which starts in Scotland tomorrow, this was just the latest in a string of challenges that would have sunk a less determined squad.
'Bad weather we can handle,' gasped one of the side's stalwarts, 35-year-old Sue Dorrington afterwards. 'What bugs us is the sheer frustration of lack of funding and sponsorship; the humiliation of top athletes like us having to sell raffle tickets in car parks and beg from our families to raise the pounds 1,000 each it'll cost us to compete in the World Cup.'
Women's rugby in Britain, once regarded as a lurid spectacle on a par with mud-wrestling, is expanding rapidly. From small beginnings in a handful of universities in the 1970s, there are now more than 250 clubs and around 10,000 women playing regularly.
The first women's World Cup at Cardiff in 1991 was won by the passionate, ultra-fit American side, who beat England 19-6 in the final at the Arms Park. Dorrington and her teammates are determined to exact revenge this time, whatever the personal and financial cost.
The Dutch were originally scheduled to host the event but pulled out in December after a string of rows and financial problems and the Scots gallantly, if rashly, offered to take it over at the last minute.
Whatever the venue, all the omens point to an England triumph. Last summer they beat Canada, Wales and the United States in Toronto to win the inaugural Canada Cup and the transformation in their technical standards within the space of a few years has been extraordinary, light years ahead of the unpolished play of their first international against France at Richmond in 1987.
The star then was the fly-half Karen Almond, a natural athlete who looked a class apart in her ball skills and tactical awareness. These days she operates within a well-drilled team including several other outstanding individuals like Emma Mitchell the scrum-half, the No. 8 Gill Burns and the explosive centre Jacquie Edwards.
Dorrington was the commercial director of the 1991 tournament and even re-mortgaged her house to help raise the pounds 30,000 needed to stage the event. 'It was a calculated risk,' she recalls. 'We knew it would probably lose money but it was history in the making and we couldn't see it fail for lack of funds.'
Dorrington, a hooker with the Wasps women's side, also introduced a new professionalism into the training, engaging her own fitness coach David Crottie four years ago and working out for around three hours a day as well as holding down a demanding job, until recently at Help the Aged but now with a corporate entertainment firm.
'My life revolves around the game,' she says. 'David puts me through a heavy programme, particularly in the build-up to the international season. It's my love for the game that keeps me going. I'm only five foot one and not a natural athlete but very strong and when I discovered rugby 12 years ago I knew I'd found a sport perfect for my size and body shape.
'We're combating ignorance the whole time and lots of men are amazed watching us play for the first time at the levels we reach. Whatever they think, we don't need their approval. We play this game for ourselves, because we love it, not to prove some feminist point.'
Jacquie Edwards agrees. The only black member of the England team and the star of the Blackheath women's side, she started playing rugby 10 years ago after an outstanding junior career in canoeing and basketball. 'I loved it from the moment I first stepped on to the pitch,' she recalls. 'At last here was a game where I wasn't restricted by a ban on physical contact where I could use skill, strength and speed all in the one sport. I started saving for a pair of boots. I'm the fifth of seven children and money's always been tight - patching our shoes with cardboard, that sort of thing - but it's never held me back from doing something I really wanted to do.'
Edwards, 25, an assessment officer who advises council tenants how to pay their rent and manage their benefits, could well do with some advice herself. She has raised just pounds 400 so far, including her life savings, towards the pounds 1,000 she needs to compete in the World Cup and is bitter about the indifference of potential sponsors towards the game.
'I train five times a week and spend thousands each year to play at international level but although I must have phoned every sporting manufacturer and women's clothing retailer, they all say women's rugby is not at all the sort of image they want to have their products associated with. It seems that if a women's sport isn't full of knife-thin girls in leotards or those sort of so-called 'feminine' stereotypes the sponsors just don't want to know.
'In fact we're as feminine in our way as any sportswomen. There's a lot of grace and real athleticism at the level we play and a growing following for top-class women's rugby. My boyfriend's Dad, who's pretty impartial, came up to me after we'd played a home club match and said: 'With your level of skill and knowledge of the game, if you could transplant that into a man's body, you could play for any men's team in the land.' That was quite a vote of confidence and it's buoyed me up during all the fund-raising and the desperate struggle to scrape enough pennies together to get to Edinburgh.'
CHAMPIONSHIP DATES AND VENUES
Group matches: Pool A (Melrose): 11 April: United States v Sweden. 13: Sweden v Japan. 15: United States v Japan. Pool B (Boroughmuir): 11: England v Russia. 13: Scotland v Russia. 15: Scotland v England. Pool C (West of Scotland): 11: France v Spain. 13: Spain v Ireland. 15: France v Ireland. Pool D (Edinburgh Academicals): 11: Canada v Wales. 13: Wales v Kazakhstan. 15: Canada v Kazakhstan.
Quarter-finals: 17 April: A1 v C2 (Boroughmuir, 2pm); B1 v D2 (Gala, 2.0); C1 v A2 (Edinburgh Academicals, 4.0); D1 v B2 (Melrose, 4.0).
Semi-finals: 20 April: Winner Q1 v Winner Q4 (Gala, noon); Winner Q2 v Winner Q3 (Gala, 2.30).
Third place play-off: 24 April(Edinburgh Academicals, noon).
Final: 24 April(Edinburgh Academicals, 3.0).
"Women in Sport: Props of a new world order - Shoestring sisters united in the cause of crossing rugby's gain line." Observer [London, England] 10 Apr. 1994